Beloved professor retires after 60 years at the UW
Known for using classroom theatrics to help students understand complex subjects, Willis Konick retires from decades of teaching at UW.
Seattle Times higher education reporter
Willis Konick, looking a little like Groucho Marx without the cigar, asks a student to slap him. He prances from desktop to desktop. He rolls his arms wildly, screeching a little. And he lures one student into an elaborate discussion about moving with him to a place called "Easy Vista."
The scenes are from a 1979 public-television documentary, "Willis," and are exactly how students remember Konick, who retires today. One of the University of Washington's most beloved and unusual professors, his lectures were part burlesque, part improv, totally unforgettable and always enlightening.
Konick, 77, started his UW undergraduate degree 60 years ago and never really left, save for a three-year spell in the Army. He began teaching at the UW in 1952, and officials think he could be the longest-serving faculty member.
While other professors were squirreled away writing research papers and climbing the career ladder, Konick was reveling in the classroom and his theatrical teaching style. His somewhat obscure classes grew from 10 students to 100 or more and then sprouted waiting lists.
He will be most widely remembered for his comparative literature courses. But he also taught Russian language and film classes. He was named the UW's most distinguished teacher in 1977 and has taught generations of Northwest students from the Nordstroms to his own grandchildren.
"The first time I visited his class, I was 11 or 12 years old and he was lecturing on some Russian novel. He had me come up in front of the class and do this skit with him. I had no idea what was going on," said grandson Jeremy Konick, 20, now a UW sophomore. "Afterward, all these people came up and said, 'He's so cool, we love him, he's our favorite professor.' "
Jeremy Konick said that even today, it's impossible for him to walk with his grandfather from his downtown condo to a restaurant without bumping into some former students whom Konick recognizes or who recognize him.
Seattle author Tim Egan, a former student who has kept in touch with Konick over the years, described Konick's classroom persona as a cross between Peter Sellers and Woody Allen.
"Not only is he one of the most popular and original and creative professors in the last 100 years, he's also literally changed people's thinking about literature and life," Egan said. "But first off, he's terribly entertaining."
Egan said Konick had the ability to relate a theme from a thick 19th-century Russian tome to something students had on their minds in their everyday lives.
"We'd walk out stunned, he was so brilliant. And his shtick was entirely self-taught," Egan said. "He's really sort of a shy guy. But once he was in front of a class ... "
Konick's father was a Russian immigrant who owned a grocery store on Queen Anne Hill. After graduating from the UW with a history degree and finishing his stint in the Army, Konick traveled to Russia for a year in 1958 as a graduate exchange student at Moscow University — one of the first American students allowed into the country during a thaw in the Cold War.
"I loved the people, they were so friendly," Konick said. "They were very curious. At first, they would come by and stare in my room, to see what an American looked like."
Back at the UW, his teaching style developed out of his spoken style of teaching the Russian language, and took on a life of its own. Konick said he found he got more from students by drawing them out through improvisation, and they seemed to love participating. Eventually, the zany antics became his signature and were expected of him.
Konick said teaching Dostoevski novels in the 1960s was easy because he didn't need to explain radicalism to students. The students also often came to class stoned — but he didn't find that as annoying as today's students, who often text-message during class, he added.
"The cellphones are an addiction. They're more than just a nuisance," he said. "It's hard to wean them from the phones."
As for retirement, Konick said he's getting too old to keep up the classroom theatrics and has long thought that 77 seemed a nice, symmetrical age at which to finish. He's planning to keep writing and will likely keep up some involvement with the UW.
Most of all, he will miss his undergraduate students.
"They are wonderful people," he said. "It's a wonderful age."
Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or email@example.com
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